Boheme uncurled, toes pointed and arms stretched over their head. The sun had slipped out from behind the low mountain range, covering the orchard in dappled light. The spring heat was starting to pick up; another year of Hellspring was here to stay. As much as Boheme hated what the heat did to their cloud of curls, it was nice to see this year's crop starting to come in much earlier than it did the year before.
It had been almost July by the time the trees had finished flowering, which was late for this part of lake country. Boheme finished stretching and drew themself up to stand, one arm braced on the mature apple tree growing overhead. The leaves gently swayed, the sweet scent of apples wafting down. This was the paradise that they had always envisioned. It was sometimes difficult to believe that their life wasn't going to dissolve into swords and balconies and grief if they rounded the wrong corner in this quaint little village.
"Boheme! Viens ici, mon amour!"
They looked over their shoulder in the direction of their name, which was bouncing off too many trees and not enough apples to justify their existence. It was maman, of course. They figured that maman had finished making them breakfast – there was rarely anything petit about her version of petit-dejeuner – and was looking for Boheme to finally come in from the blossoming heat.
"A bientot, maman! Donnez-moi une minute!"
Not being trapped in their shitty townhouse in the city meant that they could both speak much more in their preferred language. It was a treat to hear their mother's native lilt being spoken with confidence and joy, rather than in whispered corners of their building. She spoke English fluently, but always preferred French in private. The people in the city would scream at her if she ever slipped in public, tell her to "go home," whatever that meant.
Boheme knew that it had nothing to do with her language and everything to do with her skin.
Out in the country, everyone was different, which meant that everyone was welcome. Power was meaningless in places that were meant for cultivation and community. Peace was worth more than influence, which everyone a hundred-clicks outside of the city could agree on.
Their house, which was ancient, was situated on the crest of a knobby little knoll. It was three-parts French countryside – stone, brick, mortar, shabby furniture shining with history and love – and one-part post-industrial reclamation, thanks to Boheme's obsession with saving things from the local junk shop. They were particularly proud of the weathervane that they'd painted to look like frosted glass.
Boheme slouched up the little hill and was immediately struck by the scent of baked apples, toasted walnuts, and eggs. Fresh food was still something they were getting used to after so many years of stale bread, soft fruit, and half-rotten vegetables.
The abundance of this orchard, the village, the languid mountains, still struck them as unreal, unnatural. They were going to be thrown back into that pit of a life again. They'd wake up in cold sweats on the tougher nights, drowning in rainfall and emeralds. A year on and they were still haunted by that last dance in the middle of a swollen autumn storm.
"Boheme," maman called, gently breaking them out of their daydream. "Come eat with me."
Boheme's maman, Yvette, was the most beautiful woman in the world. Her matching raven curls fell in soft rings at her shoulders. They brought out the sharpness of her cheeks, which were starting to hollow out with age. Her rich brown eyes – Boheme's too – were a bit more clouded than they'd both like, the result of years mired in pollution and poverty.
And then there was her skin. Boheme had always loved the way their mother had taken care of her skin and had taught them to do the same. There did come a time where Yvette lacked the resources to take better care, especially with city-wide rations on every kind of oil that they could want. Out in the country, away from the poison and pain, Yvette's skin was beginning to recover. It was once a dull ochre, but was now a dewy, almost gleaming sorrel.
They ate together in companionable silence, much as they always did. Boheme smiled at her, she smiled at them in between bites. Mostly, they looked out the windows that overlooked the orchard on one side and the village on the other.
"Boheme, I'd like it if you went into the village to procure us some flour," Yvette said, breaking the silence. "And coffee, please."
Boheme lapped up the last of the egg on their plate with a round of bread that they'd baked earlier that morning. They were absolute trash at everything else in the kitchen, but bread was art and art was something that Boheme could do.
"Of course, maman. I may stop by the junk shop to see if they have any new canvasses."
She nodded, placing their dishes in the sink for the housekeeping drone that kept the dishes cleaned and the floors sparkling. The little terror, which Boheme had nicknamed Tiny Tin, whirred in from the living room to clean up after the delicious feast that Yvette had set for them.
"Don't forget your bag, love."
Boheme navigated to their bedroom, which was on the eastern side of the small house. Their bag was neatly thrown against the wall, somehow still upright from the night before. They'd been an anxious mess on the way back from their orchard rounds, afraid the crop might not come in on time and they'd have to skip cider season.
Cider season was big money in the village.
Their room wasn't particularly large but was palatial in comparison to their apartment bedroom. They had space for their art, including an easel and a desk for sketching. Boheme had finally started on the project that had been gnawing at them for months. Most of the canvasses that they'd amassed over the last year had been dedicated to rain and neon lights and emeralds on balconies. They'd been avoiding painting her, even though she was all they thought about before they went to sleep each night.
Those errant hauntings weren't confined to the four walls of their bedroom, either. Over the last month or so, Boheme had been hallucinating her in the village. They kept seeing her darting in and out of buildings, ducking around corners, staying to the shadows. It was unsettling, but they'd been so consumed by their art and the orchard that they were afraid to give it much more thought.
Boheme grabbed their bag, kissed maman goodbye, and began the walk down to the village. The roiling heat licked at the bare skin on their neck and shoulders, which prompted them to pull a thick scarf from out of their bag to keep their skin from getting burnt. The last fucking thing that Boheme needed was melanoma.
They didn't take long to wind down the dirt path from the top of their little knoll to edge of the village, which was just beginning to wake up. The boulangerie was a glorious scent to behold, breads and pastries beginning to crop up in the shop window. A small cafe, relatively new, was already starting to attract the early morning customers with gentle aroma of coffee. Boheme waved at a friend of theirs, a small elderly woman with bright blue hair, as she exited the new cafe.
Marie cocked her head in Boheme's direction and smiled as soon as she registered who it was.
"Ah! Boheme! You're up early, I see."
"Yeah, maman sent me down for flour and coffee."
Marie gestured to the cafe and grinned wider.
"The beans are especially beautiful today, child," she said, teeming with warmth. "The new owner is quite proud of the roast."
"Merci, Marie. Stay out of trouble today."
Marie laughed, her honeyed eyes gleaming in the early morning sunlight, and waved as she loped back to her apartment nearby.
Boheme waved at a few more residents, folks that they didn't know well enough to have a conversation with before coffee, and ducked inside the cafe. It was well-lit, but without overhead lights. Instead, each table had an abundance of fairy lights strung on and near them. It was dark, mellow, and inviting all at once. Boheme was particularly fond of the place, which the owner called Cafe Kismet.
They ordered a pound of whole beans, medium roast, for the house and whatever the day's roast was so that they could just sit and be for a moment.
A tuft of blonde hair caught their eye before it dipped around a corner.
Boheme shook their head and sipped their coffee, which was a smokey dark roast with the barest hint of dark cherry and caramel. It was a perfect addition to this slow, sleepy morning, especially after a challenging evening in the orchards. People trickled in and out of Kismet, some waving and saying hello, others just nodding the way anonymous neighbours sometimes can.
More blonde hair in their periphery startled Boheme out of their little reverie.
Who is that?
It couldn't be.
Boheme whirled around.
A year of being haunted by her memory, that last dance, the last weeks in the city – it couldn't be her. It couldn't. They had watched her leap over that edge. They'd looked for her, shouting her name over the torrent and cacophony. Poppy was gone. Boheme couldn't bring themself to confirm it by going to the street below. They couldn't bear to see her that way, so they just went home to contact their benefactor to let them know that the Overture had been completed. Payout had happened several hours later.
Boheme and Yvette had been gone within the month.
They looked down at the tuft of blonde that had been catching their eye. Either this wasn't her or she'd let her hair grow all the way out. It was tucked neatly behind her delicate ears, choppy layers cascading down past her shoulders.
They had to see her eyes. It was the only way to be sure it was, or wasn't, her.
Boheme gently tucked their fingers underneath her chin to tilt her head up to meet their eyes.
Poppy blinked back, a slow smile playing across her lips. Her face was marred on the right side, scars of a fall that should have killed her. But those eyes, those impossible emerald eyes, lit them up from the inside. It was her.
"... h-how?" they managed to stammer, before falling back against a couch.
"I don't know," she said, gently lowering herself into the opposite chair. "I woke up several months later in some strange apartment with bandages and casts everywhere. I've been trying to find you ever since. You're a hard person to find."
Boheme was stunned.
"You're... you're here. I can't believe you're here."
Poppy gestured around and smiled.
"This is mine," she said. "Cafe Kismet. As soon as I found out which little village you'd ended up in, after eons of searching, I took the Overture payouts that I'd secured in my older brother's secret accounts and set out to begin again."
She paused, reaching out to lace her fingers with theirs.
"I've been seeing you around the village, haven't I?" Boheme said, gently squeezing her hand. "I thought I was losing my mind."
Poppy laughed, but with no hint of bitterness or sadness. Boheme had never heard her genuine laugh before. It was pretty.
"No, no. I was trying not to call too much attention to myself."
She looked down at her hands.
"I was afraid that I'd scare you away if I just showed up at your new home," Poppy said. "I didn't want you to think that I was stalking you."
Boheme raised their free hand to their forehead in a mock fainting spell.
"Oh dear me, I didn't bother changing my name or my plans after we last met and I am so distressed that you've managed to find me, despite my doing absolutely nothing to hide my identity."
They both dissolved into a fit of laughter, drawing eyes and smiles from other folks at the cafe.
"I had no way of knowing."
"Hey, I get it. I'm super intimidating and everyone wants to be my friend. I can't help how gorgeous I am."
Poppy bit her lip, scarred on the one side.
"I'm being serious, Boheme. I didn't want to scare you and I didn't want to, you know, make the mistake that all weird kids like me make when we finally find someone who gets us."
Boheme quirked a manicured eyebrow.
"Oh yeah? What's that?"
"Attaching too fast and too hard."
Boheme nodded and squeezed her hand again.
"So, why talk to me today?"
She looked away, blushing.
"It was the look on your face when you sipped your coffee for the first time. It was just so peaceful and at ease. All I wanted was to live in that moment with you, especially knowing that it was my coffee that you were enjoying."
They smiled at one another, a little awkward, a little shy.
"Even if I could go back to my old life, I didn't want it anymore," Poppy said. "All I could think about was finding you and meeting your maman and maybe carving my own little world that could maybe exist alongside yours. Please don't take this as a..."
Boheme gently nudged the table between them aside to wrap their arms around her. She was still tightly muscled, but they'd atrophied somewhat while she was healing. Poppy was small, but mighty.
"You have no idea how happy I am to see you," they murmured into her soft blonde hair. "Welcome home."